How Art Therapy Benefits Kids With Autism and Special Needs

Creative outlets help children with sensory issues, fine motor skills, communication and more. Here, Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center's Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Registered Art Therapist (ATR) weighs in on its importance.

Whether it’s crayons or clay, paint or paper-mâché, art is the ultimate form of expression for children. After all, kids are naturally creative, and for those with autism, art therapy can be a wonderful tool for developing a number of skills, including communication and emotional regulation.

“A common trademark of autism spectrum disorder is the difficulty with speech and socialization – when someone is nonverbal or unable to use speech, it is usually difficult to express feelings and identify emotions,” says Elizabeth Webster, a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Registered Art Therapist with Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center in Novi.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a mental health profession that uses art-making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of people of all ages.

“Art therapy can be a non-direct and less threatening way for participants to express emotions,” Webster says. “We can also use it as a way to gradually expose them to different tactile-experiences.”

Art therapy is a natural way to meet children where they are at – and there’s no need to create masterpieces during the session.

- Advertisement -

“It’s not about the product. It’s about the process,” Webster says. “No artistic talent required. Sometimes we create pieces that aren’t so ‘pretty,’ but sometimes life isn’t pretty, so it can be symbolic of those times.”

Here, Webster offers insight on art therapy and how it benefits kids with autism.

Building skills while having fun

For a child with attention issues, sitting in one spot for a couple of hours doesn’t seem like a realistic goal. But it’s exactly what happened when Webster was facilitating an art therapy session with a patient at Blossom.

“We’ve been working on attention, and I was able to meet with him for two hours straight. We went through about four different art therapy exercises, and not once did he leave the room or ask to do anything else,” Webster says.

The activities were simple, such as mixing colors together and experimenting with new materials, but they were able to keep this child engaged and encourage socialization.

For children with sensory issues, art therapy can be used to introduce them to a variety of new sensory experiences. Webster uses different paints, temperatures, textures and fabrics in a planned and gradually exposed manner to clients to promote non-adverse reactions.

“In the past, I’ve worked with children that did not want to touch anything sticky, like glue, so at times we would get out all different types of glue and use them in a variety of ways” she says. “It’s all within reason,” she adds, “we are not going to force kids to be uncomfortable, we need to meet where the child is at.”

Painting with ice cubes and touching cold wet clay is a way she’s introduced children to different temperatures.

Art therapy also is used to improve mental health, which includes; emotional regulation, building confidence, and helping a child recognize and respond to facial expressions and social cues.

Art therapists at Blossom work closely with occupational therapists to improve fine motor skills, whether it’s painting and holding an object or using the child’s full hands and body for regulating emotions and expression.

“I think it’s most important to know that art therapists are professional clinicians; facilitating self-reflection, relaxation and expression – we’re not just people coloring in coloring books,” Webster says. “Art therapy encourages confidence because kids are naturally creative. We’re speaking their language when we use art. Being able to encourage imagination and expression at a young age helps encourage regulating sensory issues through gradual exposure, which then leads to identifying emotions ultimately building confidence.”

Art expression at home

Even if you’re not an art therapist, there are ways to help your child explore their creativity at home.

“I think giving kids the opportunity and freedom to create is essential,” Webster says. “Allow the opportunity for your kids to become exposed to different materials, allow your kids to get messy and enjoy themselves,” she adds. “Parents should research and find nontoxic, washable materials for kids to create.”

Model Magic from Crayola is a great non-toxic modeling clay to use, she says. “This encourages strengthening fine motor skills, exposure to different textures, and is made in a variety of colors,” she says, which allows learning opportunities to create new colors.

“As an adult, it is beneficial to allow your “inner child” to get creative, too. Give yourself the same opportunity, join in with your child and make art!” Webster says.

Content brought to you by Blossom Behavioral Wellness Center. For more information, visit blossombehavioral.org.